Stolen Pixels #252: Tutorialized

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Apr 20, 2011

Filed under: Column 178 comments


Here is a bit about the tutorial in Homefront. It really is illuminating to compare Homefront to Portal 2. Completely unfair and mean, but illuminating. It’s like comparing Waterworld to Avatar, only moreso. In both cases you have big budget production values and big budget marketing. Lack of success can only be attributed to a failure of artistry.

The differences between Portal 2 and Homefront are stark and immediate. Portal 2 has a seamless tutorial that teaches the player to play the game without breaking immersion, generating frustration, or constricting player actions. Homefront is a ham-fisted drill where you are force-fed basic game mechanics at the expense of the characters and the setting.

There is nothing inherent to Homefront that would have doomed it from inception. You can make an excellent videogame about a United States that has been knocked down by an EMP and is now fighting for survival. War games set in the modern era have the problem where most western nations are technologically advanced and well-funded. If movies have taught us anything, it’s that people love to cheer for the underdog. Here we can have a home-turf war where regular folks are fighting against a stronger enemy. That’s bound to resonate more with players more than another round of “Ace McWhitebread, Special-Forces Badass vs. The Drug Lords and Terrorists of Non-Descriptistan”.

(Some people quite reasonably stated that the game doesn’t interest them because they aren’t from the U.S. and so the whole “home turf” thing is lost on them. I don’t doubt this, although I can’t understand how Modern Warfare or its ilk manage to do so well. Certainly it’s even less appealing to play as a U.S. soldier than a U.S. citizen? I know I found the scenes of destruction to be gut-wrenching in Half-Life 2. I certainly didn’t look around and say, “Bah. Quasi-Europe. Who cares?”)

The point is: This could have been a tremendous game, and it failed because the designers simply failed on a fundamental level to make something people want to play. I think the Valve secret is simply playtesting. In most development houses, they think of “playtesting” as “Quality Assurance”: Have people run the game through the hardware gauntlet and make sure it works. But playtesting should also include some outside voices. Not artists, not programmers, not QA engineers, and definitely not people from marketing. Bring in some people from your intended audience, watch them play, and interview them later. You will very quickly find out what people do and do not like. Take that feedback and put it into your design. It’s clear that this wasn’t done at all for Homefront. None of these blockheaded design choices would have survived even a single round of playtesting.

I know slowing development makes games cost more, but when the difference in quality is this profound, it just doesn’t make sense to not do it. Those last couple of months are where the game begins to shine. It’s obvious devlopers care about review scores. It’s suicide to ignore the one thing that could actually improve them. Budget those two months at the outset of the project, and guard them jealously. Have some people try the game out at the halfway point, and see if there are any obvious failures in your design. Doing so could be the difference between making the next Heavenly Sword, Homefront, or Mirror’s Edge, and launching the next blockbuster franchise.

(I know I strayed a little close to politics here. If I rubbed you the wrong way, please forgive me and move on. I don’t want the comments to be a referendum on the U.S., its people, or foreign policy. Thanks.)


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178 thoughts on “Stolen Pixels #252: Tutorialized

  1. ccesarano says:

    What you’re talking about is Usability, which was one of my last courses in College. That and Human-Computer interaction have taught me enough that I look at gaming differently now, and yeah, there are a lot of times where I wonder if the developers really did that sort of testing on a game.

    Dark Void was a game where it really stood out to me as well. Just a lot of Quick Time Events where the diagrams were inconsistent and thus required multiple attempts to complete (and to think, Kim Swift left Valve for Airtight Games).

    Of course, Valve allows themselves freedom to do that sort of thing. Half-Life being “done when it is done” and such. They’ve managed to get themselves to a point where they can say “alright, this doesn’t work, let’s change it”. For example, they originally didn’t have the player taking the role of Chell once more. When players were confused and unhappy about that, they changed the story around and character model so that Chell returned as the main character. That takes a lot more development time than it sounds like, and some studios can’t afford it.

    Still, it would be a good idea if the developer had people try their game (and not the same people, new people each time) every three or so months once the game reaches any sort of playable format. And NOT just game journalists or folks at expos, either. A proper Usability test has cameras tracking eye movement of the user, people writing down notes (typically in one of those one-way mirror windows unseen) and someone in person observing them and even asking why they made certain decisions, asking them what they’re thinking, but not telling them what to do. If your user cannot complete your task, then you failed in making well designed software.

    I feel like I should try and get jobs in QA positions at game companies just so I can bring this experience to them (what little it is), but then I remember “QA” in games means “hire some random guy to sit in a cubicle finding bugs and write about them for $9/hour”.

    1. DanMan says:

      I totally agree. And it can be very difficult to do these usability tests well. I am a software developer and my company encourages us (if we have time) to sit on the other side of that one-way mirror and watch these usability sessions.

      As the guy who built the screen watching the guy spending 10 minutes trying to find the “do what I want” button, it’s frustrating. I feel like screaming at him “It’s right there! It’s obvious!” However, it’s obvious to me because I’ve been working on it 9 hours a day for 3 months.

      It can be very difficult to get the right people to get that outside view in a meaningful way.

      Also, this process is done by a separate team than our QA testing. It is completely different from finding “bugs” which we define as the system acting differently than the requirements. Usability is when the requirements and UI design don’t make sense to the user.

    2. K says:

      >If your user cannot complete your task, then you failed in making well designed software.

      Assuming it’s a game. I doubt anyone could use Visual Studio without help, and VS isn’t badly designed. It’s just ridiculously complex.

      1. ccesarano says:

        This is true as well, but that sort of product is going to have a different market. You’re going to want programmers of varying experience to try it out, and they’ll have enough computer knowledge to at least patiently look at menu options or think to use the “Help” option.

        My sister and mother tend to ask me for help any time they have computer trouble. 90% of the time it is with software I’m not familiar with. The difference is they want an answer immediately, and I’m patient to look through menus. This is okay with Visual Studio, I think. This is NOT okay with HP’s allegedly “easy to use” Photo Editor.

        1. Mrs. Peel says:

          Yep, I get that from my mom as well. She’ll ask me how to do such and such, and I’ll say, “I don’t know. Let’s find out.” Then I mess with the program for a while and figure it out. I think she’s finally observed me enough times that now she knows how to use the help button…

        2. Zak McKracken says:

          Next time they ask, show them this:

        3. Sem says:

          Same here. An extra difficulty is that my parents are deadly afraid to break something (i.e. lose their email/document, get a virus or, in the worst case, the PC exploding on them).

          OTOH, for me it works the same way in the reverse for practical things. My father/brother always help me out if I have to do something that remotely involves doing something with my hands (i.e. changing a tire, constructing a do-it-yourself closet from IKEA,…) Real life is kinda messy in that regard : no undo button, no toturial, no F1 menu…

          1. ccesarano says:

            Unfortunately for me, my Dad is also familiar with computers. So any time he and my mechanic friend get together to talk cars and grease and oil and other manly things, I frequently get “my man card” revoked.

      2. psivamp says:

        I would argue that VS is poorly designed at least as regards succession. Knowing where things are and how things work in 2005 is completely useless in 2008, and likewise between 2008 and 2010.

        1. DanMan says:

          That’s odd. I’ve never had a problem with Visual Studio and I’ve never had any help figuring things out. It all makes sense to me.

          I guess it depends on what exactly you are trying to use it for.

        2. K says:

          I agree with that, partially at least. It is quite confusing when the menus change with a new version, but on the other hand, they usually change for the better. Example: solution properties, waaaay better now.

      3. Tizzy says:

        K: You cannot give a complex program a simple interface; but it should be as simple as possible.

        Along the same lines, some folks at Pixar are looking into innovative input methods. Ultimately, they could make life easy by saying: “keyboard and mouse works, deal with it”, but they feel like anything that makes the job of their artists more complicated than it has to be is a hindrance for the company as a whole.

        1. Peter H. Coffin says:

          Which is very valid.

          So long as it works better than a keyboard and mouse. Not even just “as good”; better should be the threshold.

      4. Jarenth says:

        While you’re certainly correct, that statement is sort of the holy grail of the Usability school of design. I’ve been taught multiple times that ‘a caveman should be able to use it’ — saying that you simply need prior experience is not accepted as an excuse for bad design.

        Of course, some programs or gadgets are simply ‘complex’ by default.

      5. MrWhales says:

        Which sounds like a cop-out to me. Overtly complex is a bad design. MS Paint is well designed, all the symbols make sense, things are logically where you would think(mostly) The curvy line tool is right next to the other line tools and had a curved line as a symbol.

  2. DanMan says:

    I haven’t played Portal 2 yet, but about 80% of the first Portal WAS the tutorial. The very end was about putting everything together in order to fight GLaDOS.

    Story-wise, I can see how that can be very difficult in a game not about running “tests.” Not giving Homefront a pass or anything, but I’m not creative enough to figure out how to make that same tutorial-ish leadup to the climax work very well in a guerilla war against aliens.

    1. K says:

      Start off the game before the invasion. Teach the player how to walk around his house. How to interact with objects (flush the toilet, open doors). Have the wife call over to bring in the laundry because it starts to rain. Throw a baseball at your son for “weapon practice”, or just shoot some air guns. Introduce a character or two by means of having them come over. Do some character development. Then have everything go to hell.

      I’ve just written up a complete tutorial, plus some character development. It was terribly easy.

      1. ccesarano says:

        I don’t know if this would have worked for Homefront so well, but a good option might have been to have taken another page from Modern Warfare. The player is supposed to be a pilot, meaning they would have gone through military training. So having the tutorial be an exercise or two as a flashback to before the war might have worked.

        OR, better yet, have the player take the role of a soldier, give them the impression they are playing the hero during the invasion of America, and as they learn the basics of fighting BLAM! character gets shot and dies. Wake up as a new character years later. Sets the grim tone while teaching the player some of the basics.

        1. Canthros says:

          The player is supposed to be a pilot, meaning they would have gone through military training.

          We actually have civilian pilots in the US, man. Not all of them come out of the Air Force (or Army, Marine, or Naval air corps), though I’m given to understand the experience of being a military pilot provides a large leg up for those seeking work as a professional plane jockey (mostly because the former military guys have a logged a lot more flight hours at that point in their careers).

          There are practical shooting competitions (though they’re likely to be unfamiliar to most of the game’s audience), recreational target shooting (i.e. “plinking”), or even paintball that could have been used as serviceable introductions to ‘this is how guns work in our game’ without requiring the character to have a military background. Just FWIW.

          1. Joshua says:

            Hmm, having a tutorial as a paintgun competition could be interesting, if done well. In addition to teaching you the skills as a player, it could be a semi-plausible explanation for why an average joe would have some decent combat skills in a game. It could also be potentially impacting, if the light-hearted paintball sections were contrasted by the “do this correctly or die” combat parts in the real game.

          2. ehlijen says:

            Not all pilots are from the military, true. But the sheer costs involved in getting certified to fly a commercial jet liner mean that most will. For the most part, learning to become a commercial pilot involves military service or extended indenture to the airline that paid for your training.

            1. Canthros says:

              Which is why I mentioned that.

          3. ccesarano says:

            This is true, but considering the main character is clearly a weapons expert as well, I feel like a military background would make sense. Plus, our pilot evidently knows how to fly anything, including helicopters, which are a lot different than planes.

            1. Canthros says:

              I don’t recall if it was ever specified what he could fly, or that the game had the character fly anything other than a helicopter.

              I’ll concede the character had a military background, as that seems to be the official background. Might’ve been nice if it had ever been mentioned in the game, though maybe I just missed it (I had numerous audio problems with Homefront).

            2. Sumanai says:

              Man, that shot my idea for the tutorial. In it, the player controls the main character who just started playing a first person shooter. The in-game video game works as a practice ground for the main game itself.

              1. Jarenth says:

                Does the in-game video game come with a tutorial?

                1. Sumanai says:

                  The original thought was that the PC has already played past it before, but now that I think about it, yes. It should have a tutorial you can play through.

      2. yd says:

        Maybe even start as a baby with picking up little toys and opening a book, then having a birthday party, then shooting a BB gun, and geting your first wristwatch (or iPad, or other newfangled gadget).

        You might be on to something!

        1. Axle says:

          This was actually one of the best features of fallout 3…
          When I think of good tutorials I think oh this.

          1. decius says:

            Nope. FO3’s tutorial fails in that it is not skippable. There’s no reason to force the player to watch a rather boring birth scene in order to create a new character.

        2. K says:

          And it nearly made me like Fallout 3, but then the rest of the game got in the way. Fallout 3 also managed to be incredibly ham-fisted (and slooooow) about it, instead of lighthearted, quick and elegant (like Portal 2).

      3. False Prophet says:

        Yeah, Assassin’s Creed 2 did this. Get into a street brawl with a rival family to learn unarmed combat. Loot their bodies. Find a doctor to learn how doctors work. Race your older brother to the top of a church steeple to learn the parkour mechanics. Carry a box for your mother. Meet Leonardo Da Vinci. Beat up your sister’s cheating boyfriend. Get a feather for your little brother. Develop some empathy for your family at the same time so you care about them when the shit hits the fan.

  3. K says:

    I had to read it twice to find the politics. I don’t think you’re problematically close.

    However, I will share what I suspect to be the reason why someone of European origin (like me) will identify with Homefront worse than with MW2 (of which I have player neither). It is very easy to identify with “soldiers in foreign lands”, because which soldiers they are isn’t so important any more. It is hard to identify with “soldiers, defending their home turf”, when you are not from there.

    What can you identify better with? Chinese people on Mars fighting aliens, or Chinese people in China fighting Aliens? I find the first one easier, because being Chinese doesn’t matter so much when you’re on Mars, but it matters a ton when you’re in Peking.

    I have no clue if that made any sense.

    1. Falcon_47 says:

      It made total sense, i was about to state the same thing, when playing a COD or BF or similar its easy to dismiss the characters nationality, because your fightin a “terrorist” somewhat random. Even the scene in MW2 where the american capital is attacked is kinda easy to dismiss because the enemy is still the same, and it doesn’t feel so much like your protecting your “home”, but that your hunting that same bad guy in a different place on a different situation. Homefront makes it’s call by stating that America is under-attack and you gotta defend it, but MW2 makes it’s cal by stating “here is a bad guy, go get im” so it’s not that similar, at least for me. Even the nuke scene in COD4, although a great artistic peace, didn’t ring any bell of revenge or sadness for the character because to me it didn’t matter if he was American or from Cabodja, it was just a means to get the story going froward. (Hope i’m being clear enough, don’t want to be disrespectful or start a flame war, k? Its just a videogame guys, lets have fun first and foremost. Thx)

    2. ccesarano says:

      See, I’d actually find that sort of setting to be great, giving me a view of a culture I don’t get to see often. Then again, maybe that’s because every game I play is in America.

      I’d love a game that had me Mirror’s Edge through London during the bombing in WWII, trying desperately to find shelter as stuff explodes around me. Deliver an experience that is horrifying and exhilarating. But American game developers seem to lack imagination these days.

    3. I would say that defense is inherently less engaging than offense *unless* you’ve given the player reason to care about what is being defended. This could be as simple a motivation as “I didn’t get to loot that place yet!” or “I worked hard getting that stuff together!” to complex feelings about “home” or whatever.

      I wouldn’t find defending the “White House” particularly inspiring or even interesting. I don’t feel attachments to particular places; I’ve moved too many times and they’re all the same to me.

      Now, in Fallout 3, the wreckage of the Mall (and the Wright Flyer in the air and space museum) made me feel sad, because I’ve actually been to those places and enjoyed myself there. However, I’d feel similarly sad in a game with a wrecked Versailles. But the White House? Who cares.

    4. Soylent Dave says:

      An American should resonate much more with Homefront (or MW2, or Fallout 3) – I don’t think that’s the problem*.

      I made the point in an earlier post that 28 Days Later probably resonated a lot more with me than with any Americans who watched it.

      But that resonance should be something extra that Americans (or Brits, or whoever) gets to enjoy when they play your game (or watch your film) – it shouldn’t be the everything there is.

      *(Is it a bit boring to set everything in America featuring American characters with American accents? Yes. Add it to the the list of ‘other things that are unimaginative about the games industry’ (white guys, world war 2, M16s etc. etc.))

      1. Zak McKracken says:

        I guess that last thing you mention is something that Hollywood likes to do, too. Most Germans know the US legal system better than the German one. And believe you will be read your rights if you’re arrested by the police. And so on…
        But then, of course Hollywood’ll be making movies playing in their own country, that’s quite understandable. The problem is probably that US movie and game makers (music too, to an extent) are dominating the world market, so pop culture seems to take place almost completely in the US. Culture is the US’ main export product, even though many would say you don’t have a lot in the first place. But maybe that’s just why you’re producing so much of it?

        1. ccesarano says:

          I think there’s a lot of reasons for it. I also think it’s interesting that modern rock and roll was built off of UK talent, and modern film off of French talent. Video games are the first piece of major entertainment created in America, though it was saved by Japan.

          As for the legal system, no, Americans don’t know their legal system well. They don’t know it well because they learn it on television.

        2. Sumanai says:

          From what I’ve heard, the police have to read you your rights before questioning, not during/before arrest.

  4. Recently I was contacted by an outside marketing agency to playtest an “upcoming MMO”. One of qualifications for this playtesting was that I be between the ages of 18 and 29. The pay was to be $250 for 2 days of testing.

    The irony of this was that…

    a) It was for Star Wars: The Old Republic – my former employer
    b) I’m 44 years old (but I was going to lie about my age because I thought this restriction was complete crap)
    c) $250 for 2 days was more than what I was PAID to be a QA tester when I WORKED FOR BIOWARE!!

    So… apparently some companies DO have playtests. They just have silly age restrictions.

    1. krellen says:

      That’s really stupid. Most of their customers aren’t that young; why restrict the playtest to a group that doesn’t even represent a majority of the market?

      1. Dumbledorito says:

        Just about every industry thinks that “young male, age 12-24” bracket (or thereabouts) is where the money is.

        1. krellen says:

          Also stupid. I have way more disposable income now than I did in my 20s.

          1. Jeff says:

            I’m pretty sure I did the most pirating at the ages of 19-24, with a sharp drop off of -100% when I had a steady income and less free time.

            1. Felblood says:


              I stopped paying for the majority of my software at the age of 18, and I didn’t start trying to kick the hook hand, until I was 24. It’s that age where you’re old enough to be able to pirate stuff, but still too young to be responsible about it.

              1. Lanthanide says:

                I don’t think it’s a case of “old enough to pirate stuff”, so much as a case of “technology has advanced far enough that it is now cheap and easy to pirate things”.

                If you consider that back in 2001, a 40 gig hard drive was considered “big”, you get a whole new perspective on things.

      2. Eric says:

        Design-by-committee strikes again!

      3. Jarenth says:

        Could be they just already tested the other age groups. I know I’ve specifically looked for specific-age participants for one of my classes, because those were just the hardest to find.

    2. Simon Buchan says:

      a) Ha ha ha! They should probably black-list former employees, no?
      b) Age restrictions are probably fairly useful, in general. The (vast?) majority of 44 year olds would give them the feedback that they should not use a mouse or keyboard, and have the game operate via mind-reading :)
      c) It’s also only for 2 days, it’s not a salary :)

      Also, you are one of the few people that know if that game will be any good. I don’t know whether to envy or pity you for your secret knowledge :)

      1. krellen says:

        The vast majority of 44 year olds have been using computers longer than the vast majority of 18 year olds. Why would they have problems with a mouse and keyboard?

        I work in an office full of women in their late 40s through their 60s. Very few of them are uncomfortable with keyboards and mice.

        1. Mari says:

          Thank you for not making me say it.

    3. Amarsir says:

      Is it possible that they already had testers in the 30-50 bracket and were age specific because that’s the bracket they needed filled?

      1. That’s the only legitimate excuse for this kind of thing, really. I mean, why would you even anonymously test young folks at all? In my experience the people you’re going to get useful information out of are older, more practiced at identifying their own mental states, more articulate, etc. The older folks usually have shorter attention spans for games (because they have actual responsibilities), less tolerance for stupidly-punishing gameplay, etc.

        1. Chargone says:

          and thus make people responcible for the stupid look bad in front of their bosses. and no one likes that. :P

    4. Eric says:

      The strange thing is that I’ve been trying to get a job in the games industry for the last year or so (yay unemployment), and I haven’t found a single QA job being advertised anywhere, nor have I ever received any follow-up e-mails regarding my requests. That they don’t even seem to care about internship requests (i.e. I WORK FOR FREE) gives me the impression that they just don’t care. I guess prior industry experience makes you a candidate to get e-mails like that, but still a bit strange to be singled out.

    5. Fists says:

      From the way they describe the bet testing selections they don’t have caps but actually need quotas from each demographic so you would be there to represent the youth market and they would look for others to fill their older generation focus group.

      I’m sure Bioware couldn’t be stupid enough to not realise that most of the fans of The old republic setting and star wars in general are over 25.

  5. Wtrmute says:

    Funny you should compare Waterworld and Avatar. Waterworld was a true crock; but I happened to like it better than James Cameron’s little environmental punch in the face. In the future, if you want to compare good movies and bad movies, please compare Waterworld to, I don’t know, The King’s Speech or something. You know, good movies.


    1. ehlijen says:

      So what if shamus likes Avatar (or assumes people do based on it’s success)? I like it. And it wasn’t so much an environmental punch as look at MMOs, I thought.

      But the point is: every piece of art has people that don’t like it. So conforming with everyone’s opinion when calling something good is pretty much impossible.

      1. Wtrmute says:

        YHBT. HAND.

        Although, being serious, everybody likes Avatar because of the stunning photography, but the story is utter bilge. It’s basically Dances with Wolves IN SPACE!

        1. LadyTL says:

          Actually it was Fern Gully’s Dances with Wolves in SPACE.

          1. tengokujin says:

            Or you know, every “Fish out of the water becomes local hero” story, IN SPACE.

        2. Sem says:

          Living in Belgium, I immediately thought of it as Smurfs in SPACE.

      2. Simon Buchan says:

        I keep “good movie” and “movie I enjoyed” quite seperate in my mind, even given seperate genres for judging. Waterworld was an aweful movie I somewhat enjoyed. Avatar I thought was a middling to good action romp movie (hampered by fairly bad characterision more than any “unoriginality” – why is everyone so damn STUPID?), but I just didn’t find anything enjoyable in it, no emotional connection to the characters, didn’t ever catch the flow (when the pacing of the movie gives you exactly what you need, something I loved The Termintator for). This might also be since I didn’t care about technical acheivement, which I feel I’ve been permanently jaded by the advance of game tech or something – I kinda *expect* CGI to be that quality.

      3. Shamus says:

        I was comparing them in box-office terms. One of the most hilarious and humiliating flops vs. one of the most astounding success stories.

        1. Dumbledorito says:

          I seem to recall hearing that ‘Waterworld’ was originally scripted for Roger Corman as a ripoff of ‘Mad Max.’ He rejected it because it would cost too much to film.

        2. Falcon says:

          That’s fair. I wouldn’t use that analogy myself for one reason (probably the way it’s causing people to disagree with it). Avatar is mindless spectacle, well known and enjoyed for being such, Waterworld was attempting to be the same, but failed. That’s more like comparing COD: Black Ops to homefront. Portal 2 otoh is anything but mindless spectacle, it’s tight, it’s brilliant, and it is the product of very careful thought about every element. It’s also highly successful financially (so far). I’d compare it to Inception myself .

          I know I’m nitpicking, but I’m trying to express why the analogy failed for some people, myself included.

          1. Abnaxis says:

            I must just be really weird, but I actually enjoyed Avatar more than Inception. I don’t know what it was about Inception, but I saw pretty much every twist coming before it hit, which really detracted from it. I actually felt like there was a lot they didn’t do with it that they could.

            Avatar, on the other hand, didn’t depend on mind screw oddities so I enjoyed it more for the visuals and technology. Sure the story was fairly straightforward anf formulaic, but better to be straightforward with visuals than straightforward without. Plus, I’m a sucker for genre crossovers (BIG fan of Firefly), so “Dances with Wolves…IN SPACE” had some appeal to me.

            1. Bubble181 says:

              To be fair, NOT seeing the twists in Inception coming means you haven’t seen enough Hollywood movies yet. It really WAS predictable.

              1. Zukhramm says:

                There were twists in Inception?

                1. Abnaxis says:

                  I’unoo, whenever I hear people fawn over it they seem to act like there are…

            2. krellen says:

              Inception bugs me because they stole the plot from Duck Comics and have been complete jerks about admitting it.

              1. Jarenth says:

                Leonardo DiCaprio as Uncle Scrooge would have made Inception the best movie of this decade.

        3. Simulated Knave says:


          Star Wars.

          The Dark Knight.

          All of those are less ambiguous in regard to quality than Avatar. One is the second-highest grossing movie of all time once you adjust the box office.

          1. Lanthanide says:

            I thought The Dark Knight was a confusing mess that didn’t make much sense. I get the impression everyone just loves it because Heath died.

            1. Sean says:

              Everyone loves it because Heath’s performance was all anyone could remember of it (and it was awesome). As a whole when I thought about it afterward I thought it was pretty mediocre, but while I was watching it I was just waiting for the Joker to pop up again and steal the show.

      4. The Bard says:

        While you certainly can’t make a blanket statement of something that’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’, there are relatives.

        ‘Avatar’ would certainly NOT fit under the category of brilliant in the film sense. It is nowhere close to the Portal 2 of the film industry. Avatar = Call of Duty. It steals money that you later regret spending, it’s generic and aristically poor while being technologically rich.

        I think Avatar is the dead last thing Shamus wants to pull in as a comparison for something that’s great. Even under the terms he’s listed for the comparison, “box office success”, I think the comparison fails hard.

        It implies Portal 2 is a narrative hack job that sold a lot because of its shiny tech. When Portal is anything but. I mean, I just… argh, I could go on a 15 hour long rant on this.

        Let’s just call Portal 2 the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There. Fixed. Made a lot of cash AND it didn’t suck. Now I can go to sleep happy. 8D

        1. Falcon says:

          Bah, bah I say! Stupid slow iPhone keyboard allowed you to get your comment typed first. Now my reply shall seem copied, and the timestamp shall allow all the internt to know my shame.

          But yeah, I agree. Avatar is a bad example because popular =/= good. Just look at what constitutes for popular music *shudder*

          1. The Bard says:

            To my Dances with Portals post, your comment is not unlike the film Avatar. It is late, unoriginal, and morally barren. 8P

            Ah, but I jest. When I saw Portal 2 = Avatar, I stopped reading in my tracks. Any argument starting that way can’t end well.

            I powered through it anyway, and I blame Homefront. It’s broken poor Shamus’ brain. ;D

            1. Shamus says:

              “Portal 2 = Avatar”

              I never said that. It was an analogy, a loose one, and it doesn’t depend on Avatar being as good as Portal 2 for it to work.

              Avatar was very, VERY good at what it set out to do. Perhaps you wished that Cameron had a different goal in mind, but now we’re talking about about aim and not execution.

              1. The Bard says:

                Your keyboard says no, but your body says yes…

                OK, seriously, I’ll grant you didn’t explicitly say the two were pure equals, but when you make an analogy, you are inviting people to compare things.

                You essentially said Homefront is to Portal 2 as Waterworld is to Avatar.

                For those of us who haven’t touched Homefront, we look at the movies you bring up to fill in the gap. It’s like a math equation: X/4 = 1/2. If I want to know what X is, I need to know the relation of 1 over 2.

                Waterworld is known for being a terrible trainwreck, and Avatar is mostly known as being a terrible trainwreck that made a lot of money.

                Even if only 50% of the world thinks these statements are true, it leaves a 50% chance of failure for your analogy.

                Basically, why pick a film which lines up perfectly on one axis and not at all on another, when there are so many films that fit so much more seamlessly?

                Sure, I could say Bill Clinton was like Hitler, because both guys ran a country. From a technical standpoint, it’s a perfectly good analogy. But there are so many more fitting choices you could have made which don’t lead to such terrible places.

                1. Shamus says:

                  Great. You Avatar-haters get together and pick one big-budget movie that you think is truly excellent and won’t cause any further objections. As soon as you all agree on a good movie, I’ll change the original post.

                  Have fun. :)

                2. Viktor says:

                  The Matrix. Or any of the Lord of the Rings movies.

                  (I wasn’t confused by the analogy, but there are quite a few great big budget movies you could have gone with that don’t have as much hate as Pocahontas Avatar.)

                3. Dumbledorito says:

                  I think the crowd is withholding their final decision until you release “Spoiler Warning.”

                4. BenD says:

                  How about Spoiler Warning? It’s a movie. Yeah. :D

                5. The Bard says:

                  You’re a good man, Charlie Shamus.

                  All the voices barking at you in Homefront must have seemed like a nice vacation after dealing with us needy people on your webzone. ;)

                  As long as we’re playing the game, I’d agree with Lord of the Rings. Solid writing, a lot of love went into all of the details, and in addition, Shamus made a popular running comic series off of it. It works on all levels!

                6. ehlijen says:

                  Dark Knight and Daredevil? Shawn of the dead and Resident Evil? Jaws and Piranha 3D?

                  But I still don’t see the problem with the original Shamus put forth. Avatar is not just dances with wolves in space, it’s dances with WoW in space.
                  The tree hugging nature freaks are 100% artifiial CGI while the evil humans are all real actors; ie VR vs real reality.
                  His ‘character’ almost gets killed because his mother figure forces him to actually eat before letting him get back online.
                  The ridiculous trials and rewards (flying mount, princess) of the na’vi are pretty much stock standard in most computer game plots.

                  It is more than dances with wolves because that movie was made before online realities existed. Avatar combines dances with wolves with that. You don’t have to like it, but it’s not just the same.

                7. Falcon says:

                  Oh Shamus. You should know better, we’re nerds on the internet. Complaining about popular media is our national pastime!

              2. False Prophet says:

                No, the original analogy is apt.

                Even though his track record was fairly reliable, Titanic was seen as Cameron’s ego trip. No critic seriously thought it would become the biggest grossing film of all time. Its success was completely unexpected. But then it was seen as a fluke on Cameron’s part. Before Avatar came out, no one thought lightning would strike twice and that he could produce another success on the level of Titanic, especially with all the time and money he sank into Avatar. He proved them all wrong.

                It’s a slightly different situation with Portal, but similar. Portal was an afterthought game where a small group of indie developers were hired by Valve, paired with some great writers, and bundled with more anticipated software. It became the breakout smash success no one saw coming. But there was still the “lightning in a bottle” mentality among many critics regarding Portal 2, which presumably have been swept away (I haven’t had a chance to play it yet, but consensus says Portal 2 is a winner).

                Waterworld used a common movie formula (see Steel Dawn, The Road Warrior or half of all Westerns), a big budget and a big name (Costner), and failed miserably. Likewise, Homefront took the most common genre (with a potentially interesting twist), a AAA budget and a big name (Milnius), and failed miserably.

                1. The Bard says:

                  In fairness, I think EVERY movie Cameron makes is generally viewed as his ego trip. ;)

                  I would disagree with you on Avatar being a surprise, or anything close to it. Cameron was a very well established director before Titanic. Even though I’m mostly “meh” on his work outside of The Abyss, I would still never call Titanic a fluke. The guy has been doing big budget blockbusters for a while. Sure, the insane #’s Titanic put up were probably buffered by little girls seeing it 12x, but he was always considered great… just a bit full of himself. And by “a bit,” I really mean “a lot.”

                  Avatar had a lot of money thrown behind it. Society today will pretty much go to see anything if it has killer effects, even if the story and characters only get a few minutes of attention before the film is canned and shipped.

                  “Unobtainium” reeks of lazy, careless, and sloppy writing. It would be like calling your stereotypical redneck general intent on killing the native population while he chews on his cigar “Antagonist”.

                2. krellen says:

                  I viewed calling it “Unobtanium” as a nod towards “Yes, we know it’s a McGuffin”.

                  Also incredibly realistic, because if we really did discover an element with the magical properties described in the film, there would certainly be a strong segment of the scientific population pushing to name it “Unobtanium”.

                3. Dumbledorito says:

                  Realistic? Avatar? The movie where robot-suits use knives? And labeling a Macguffin as such in a sci-fi film is a bit like naming a wizard “Magician DeSpellcaster.” Unless Avatar was meant to be a comedy, it was a dumb decision.

                  “Unobtanium” could be a nickname, maybe, but you won’t hear scientists exclusively call the Higgs-Bosun “The God Particle.” And elements aren’t given ‘joke’ names; There’s no push to call Helium “Upsidasium.”

                  Scientists will name an organism after Gary Larson, but an element? Not so much.

                4. The Bard says:

                  Now, now, Dumbledorito. Let’s be fair to Avatar. It wasn’t a robot using a knife. It was a robot using a COMICALLY OVERSIZED knife while his pilot chewed his way through a cigar, his cockpit, the plot, and probably the rest of the known universe.

                  Avatar and realism go together like Mr. Magoo and a thong. Which is to say, not at all.

                  I give Cameron 0 credit for intentionally calling it Unobtainium as a joke. It’s a placeholder term that he was too lazy to change out because he was too busy pioneering a multibillion dollar 3d camera industry to be bothered by unimportant matters like story. I’d put it along the lines of forgetting to edit out a movie clapper and then saying “Haha, I left that in on purpose, ol’ chap. Jokes on you, duuuuude.”

                5. xuberfail says:

                  Alternativly Cameron reads TvTropes…

                6. Abnaxis says:

                  I realize I’m an engineer, not a scientist, but colleagues and I threw around the term “unobtainium” way before Avatar. It usually means “material that, while technically in existence, is entirely to expensive/impractical to make a product out of.”

                7. Lanthanide says:

                  Here’s the Avatar entry from Unobtainium in tvtropes:

                  “In Avatar, referred to by name. They actually call it unobtanium. Although, in this film, the unobtanium is more of a Mineral MacGuffin; it’s described as a room temperature superconductor that makes space travel more affordable, but never really expanded on apart from that. It’s mentioned in the website wiki with some of the other uses. The film is frequently Mis-blamed by people who didnt like the movie for “making up” a mineral name as uncreative as unobtainium.
                  According to the guide, it’s called “unobtainium” because this is a tongue-in-cheek designation for all high-temperature semiconductor materials, called so by Earth scientists when they gave up on reliably synthesizing them.”

                  Sorry, James Cameron *does* actually know what he’s doing, as much as you might like to knock him. Avatar is one of the most trope-laden movies in recent history, and follows on from Star Wars: A New Hope which was also extremely trope-heavy. Sometimes tropes are what the audience wants, if they’re done well.

                  Also for the record, I actually quite liked Waterworld. The evil guy with the oil tanker somehow still full of oil and the corny glass eyeball was horrid, but everything outside of that was good.

                8. The Bard says:

                  For my part, I would never argue that Cameron doesn’t know what he’s doing. He consistently gets butts in the seats. And he’s certainly better than Michael Bay.

                  But like George Lucas before him, he’s lost sight of story, dynamic characters, and plot because he’s enamored with the technology.

                  As for the Unobtainium, I won’t presume to speak for anyone else, but I’m aware Cameron didn’t make it up. That doesn’t suddenly make its use witty or clever.

                  If I intentionally name my characters “Deus Ex Machina”, “Protagonist,” and “The Bad Guy’s Assistant” does that make it ok? If it fits the tone of my film, perhaps. For me, calling it “Unobtainium” turned the whole movie into a joke, and while I viewed Avatar mostly as a comedy anyway, I surmise Cameron did not intend it to be such.

                  So to recap my longwindedness… doing something intentionally does not inherently protect it from idiocy. See George Lucas.

                9. Falcon says:

                  You really hit the shame of it with the Lucas/ Cameron bit. I guess I’ll add my usual bit on spectacle over substance, which is that I hate that!

                  I recently rewatched the original Star Wars trilogy after having not seen it in over 2 years. It really is as great as I remembered. I watched critically to see if nostalgia was altering my view, but it was still great. Sure it had spectacle, but there was also sharp dialogue, interesting characters, Harrison Ford acting circles around everyone else. From 1974 to around 1990 Lucas was unarguably one of the best in Hollywood at creating blockbuster action movies. At some point though he forgot what made his films truly great. Star Wars ep 1 was a visual breakthrough (that looks dated now, but that’s not the point). It was also an incoherent, poorly written, worse acted, terribly dialogued, tripe of a film. It still had his flair for world building and visual punch, but lost much more.

                  Cameron followed the same arc. At some point he bought his own hype. Avatar is the result, visually stunning, terribly written.

                  The thing is I am not your average consumer. Wow factor is a non factor to me. I will gladly trade visual fidelity for artistic achievement every. single. time. Same for video games, I love playing grand strategy games. Lately I’ve been playing a ton of Medieval 2, the graphics are dated. Individual units look straight out of 2000. I don’t care. The gameplay is there.

                  I guess it’s easier to target a rehash of the same old concepts at a less picky audience. After all why bother with making smart and have to think about it, when making it shinier will attract a less picky audience.

    2. Nick says:

      Me too, it’s not that Waterworld was particularly good, it’s that Avatar was complete garbage, although it seems like I am the only one who has this opinion. I’m glad to know I’m not.

  6. Zukhramm says:

    The best part of how Portal and its sequel teaches you is that the player. There’s nothing worse then the game moving on without the player.

    A good example of a gmae that failed was Mirror’s Edge, or at least the demo. There is a part where you learn how to disarm enemies. Since this was one of the first times touching a PS3 for me I decided to go with using that motion controller. So the game prompts me to flail the controller up, I do and failed. Fine, I try again and succeed, I don’t remember if it went to the next part of the tutorial right then or if it had me make three successful disarms, in either case I had yet to get the timing of it down. The gmae just decided for me that I knew how to do it.

    In Portal, even in the simples chamber which is just a button that opens a door the player is allowed to poke around for however long they want. You could keep picking up and butting down the cube, watching that door open and close every time. The player is in control of when it’s time to move on.

    1. Robyrt says:

      These sort of things are a lot easier to achieve in a game about virtually context-free, two-way tests and puzzles. The only way for that to happen in a game about shooting or building or punching or talking or jumping is to train the player on two-way versions of one-way actions. And if you don’t want to break immersion, it’ll have to be inside a training center or something, which doesn’t exactly get the player on the edge of her seat.

      1. ccesarano says:

        There are still ways to slowly introduce concepts and keep repeating them over time. In fact, Extra Credits recently had an episode on it.

        The issue is most games pause everything and say “Here’s how you disarm…”. There have been times where I thought I understood what the game told me, and it turned out I didn’t. There was no option to see the menu again and, my favorite, the instruction manual provided little to no detail (I love it when the instruction manual says NOTHING of certain abilities).

        So I’m left to search the Internet for how to do something, meaning you get a lot of “its easy, just…” and then repeat what the tutorial said, and after twenty minutes I finally find someone that says “BUT you also have to…”, one minor detail that kept me from succeeding.

        While we just complained about Dead Space 2 a couple weeks ago, there was an indirect tutorial early in that game. The first time you find a work bench you might spend all your power nodes, only to find a door locked and requiring a power node right after. Good news! There’s a power node on the ground nearby. Open the door, and inside is a power node schematic, allowing you to purchase your own power nodes, and a semi-conductor worth 10,000 credits, precisely the cost of a power node to purchase! The game basically teaches you all about power nodes and how to obtain them without a single menu popping up.

        Later on the game teaches you about exploding babies without actually threatening the player. Good stuff.

        1. Shamus says:

          I loved the loading screens that advised engineers to always carry a power node so they could open up a closet, and also advised them the the contents would be random.

          “Wait. So you’re telling me that in the event of an emergency, I should go in here and get a bunch of totally random crap?”

          But yeah, I think DS2 did a pretty good job of teaching the player. Not Valve-level teaching, but way better than most games. Having not played the original, the game brought me in with minimal fuss. The only problem I had was with the shooting those targets over a window to make the airlock close during a decompression. I totally forgot about it after being taught the mechanic, and was killed a few times before I remembered what I was supposed to do.

          1. ccesarano says:

            Those can be a bitch anyway. If you’re not at the furthest point from the room and one of those windows goes out then you have no time to line up a proper shot. I saw Isaac get chopped to kibbles two or three times in a room before I finally ran past all the dangerous necromorphs, shot out the window and then lined up a shot JUST before I got sucked into space.

            So if I were Visceral, in the future I’d make sure those windows are always at a good distance when Necromorphs start crawling out of every orifice, that way a player isn’t rewarded for clever thinking with insta-death.

          2. Matt K says:

            This happened to me with Zelda: Twilight Princess. I spent over an hour trying to beat the final boss and just couldn’t do it. After consulting the internet it turned out the game taught it (via stopping a charging bull) but it was so long ago (like 15 hours game time) that I just forgot.

            1. Alexander The 1st says:

              Sure, it was difficult (Midna’s clue didn’t really help either), but discovering that on your own is REALLY satisfying. Actually, the whole final line of bosses are full of brick joke mechanics like that. (I can’t remember a ballgame Link boss [The bouncing the light ball back], though that’s mostly a expected mechanic from LOZ:OOT, but the final swordfight has you using each of the sword moves you learn in the game [Or, well, at least the first one for the final blow.])

              Did you try using the fishing rod in the final swordfight?

              1. ccesarano says:

                Expected mechanic from Ocarina of Time? Ouch. That design first appeared in A Link to the Past as the only way to defeat Aghanim. It was why you needed the Master Sword, as no other blade could harm him (and even then, directly attacking the guy caused Link to take damage).

                That is my favorite game in the franchise, and that you gave Ocarina of Time the credit for it hurts me so. :(

  7. SolkaTruesilver says:

    (I know I strayed a little close to politics here. If I rubbed you the wrong way, please forgive me and move on. I don't want the comments to be a referendum on the U.S., it's people, or foreign policy. Thanks.)

    Well, if I want to talk politics, I’m bloody gonna talk politics! I am SO outraged at your take on the topic, how can you lack so much sensitivities?

    You completely didn’t talk about Canada. And that’s unforgivable. Never again, Shamus.

    Never again.

    1. Old_Geek says:

      Hey! We know Canada around here. Canada is the part of the United States that sits on the North Pole. It is inhabited mostly by polar bears, penguins and Santa Claus. Sarah Palin is the Prime Minister. Oh, and sometimes they speak French, though nobody knows why. Its a mystery.

      1. Mari says:

        I love you. This. This is what my Canadian friends and I (a mere Texan) love to joke about. One of my sweet Canadian friends and I have a running joke about Canada’s fierce penguin army.

        It’s passe’ but once upon a time every good geek knew that Canada was secretly plotting to take over the U.S. via a combination of video game mind control and the very nukes that we Americans secretly stashed in Canada to fool the Ruskies then forgot about. It would be a simple matter afterward to march the penguins through with no resistance. Hail our conquering Canadian overlords.

        1. ccesarano says:

          If I ever draw maps of Canada, I always have a “Here thar be dragons” section as well as “The Dread Fortress of Nega-Moose”

          1. dovius says:

            what about ‘here there be Penguins’? And just let it cover the entire southern half of Canada.

          2. Viktor says:

            What? No mention of the horror that is Displacer Moose?

            1. ccesarano says:

              I would include him, but it would seem he’s been displaced.

        2. That’s what happens when you subsidize the penguins’ pharmaceuticals.

      2. Eric says:

        Sarah Palin? Our prime minister is a joke, but… come on, that’s no fair. :(

  8. Deadpool says:

    Maybe I’m crazy, but I’m Brazilian and the concept of Homefront still interested me (I mean, I never wanted to buy it because I knew it’d be shit, but conceptually it sounded interesting). Playing as a citizen of any country, fighting a war in his own backyard, is a compelling idea…

  9. Meredith says:

    I don’t understand how no one else in the industry seems to have learned this lesson from Valve in the last decade or so. I can only think of maybe one or two other development studios that have people rabidly lining up for all of their games, not just a particular franchise. And it’s not like they keep it a secret; they put their whole process right there in the commentaries for everyone to hear. To be fair, though, it’s probably a little easier for them since they publish their own stuff and can set their own schedules.

    As for the comic/tutorial: There is nothing more annoying than characters yelling at me to do something I’ve already done, or I’m not ready to do yet because I’m looking around. The occasional fast-paced section where I’m just running from something, or frantically setting up a defense under instruction can be great fun, but it has to be short or it just gets exhausting. (I will admit the finale radios in L4D make me crazy by repeating ‘call me when you’re ready’ till I want to shoot them. Once would really be enough. So…no one’s perfect, I guess.)

    1. Simon Buchan says:

      There are also sections in Portal 2 where you are being implored to run but there is obviously no time limit or danger. (Except for a point or two when there is… those bastards.)

  10. Old_Geek says:

    I don’t think this step is skipped on purpose. It happens when games are on a rigid release schedule. When a game has to come out for Christmas or for a movie tie in, it is invariably rushed, since every creative project humanity has ever done since cave paintings have taken longer than originally planned. When it does and you can’t push the release back, something must be skipped. That almost has to be the extra playtesting.

    Good games avoid an inflexible release date. A big part of the reason a Portal 2, Star Craft 2 or Dragon Age: Origins were so good was that they were scheduled to be released “when they are finished”. Sure, that made them take years longer than people expected, but the difference in quality was so obvious.

    1. MintSkittle says:

      This probably has more to do with the publishers than the developers. When you’re dealing with a publisher, you have to work to their schedule, release when they say so, development be damned. When you publish your own games, you can afford to say it will be released “when it’s done,” and not worry about some outsider looming over your shoulder to get it done yesterday.

  11. Irridium says:

    Eh, Homefront’s story never really grabbed me. Because A) Why would the rest of the world simply let North Korea get strong enough to attack and conquer the US.

    And B) Why didn’t they do anything while North Korea was attacking and conquering the US?

    But regardless of the story, the game didn’t do much for me. Because 2 games did what this game did and did it better. World in Conflict was much more emotional for me, and Freedom Fighters was just much more fun. And both were pretty good games.

    1. Jarenth says:

      A) Kicks and giggles.
      B) A daytime invasion of the USA would mean it’s likely the middle of the night in Europe. Also, it’s a ten hour flight.

      1. Irridium says:

        Well, I guess it is one hell of a flight…

        1. 8th_Pacifist says:

          I imagine the general attitude to the downfall of America around the world would be “Eh. Good riddance.”

          1. Shamus says:

            Yeah! I disagree with them so who cares if 330 million people die? (eyeroll)

            1. Jarenth says:

              Hey, you guys gave us Paris Hilton and Hannah Montana.

  12. Mari says:

    OK, this is terribly nitpicky, Shamus, but I don't want the comments to be a referendum on the U.S., it's people, or foreign policy. There shouldn’t be an apostrophe there unless you intended to say “I don’t want the comments to be a referendum on the U.S., it is people, or foreign policy.”

    Other than that, right on man! I’ve been lamenting for a few years how the game development process works now. Few companies appear to use out-of-house (and occasionally even in-house) playtesting. “Beta” apparently now means “don’t blame us for the broken parts,” and can be considered a perpetual release state. QA is frequently “is the game bling-y enough?”

  13. DamnedLies says:

    I’m actually against focus groups. Not that the opinions of actual players are not worthwhile, it’s more the problems with focus groups are that no one screens the opinions of those people for idiots and the people who get the data and work with it tend to be marketing and development.

    I’ve seen innovative game features cut because focus groups said “this isn’t enough like WoW, I’d like this to be more like WoW, I love WoW” and likewise for Modern Warfare. Or “I’ve never seen a feature like this, so I’m against it without ever having tried it”. We bemoan how so many new games are like existing games and not innovating, but to an extent, these focus groups are a reason why. Sure, there are SOME players who want new stuff, but largely the members of focus groups would rather all games be like their favorites rather than make new and interesting games better.

    1. DanMan says:

      That’s more railing against the process than the tool. Every tool can be used wrong and screw things up.

      A good focus group will not ask “What other MMOs have you played and how does this compare?” And a good focus group will have a good mediator that will tactfully and quickly cut off “WoW is so amazing because…” discussions.

      I am not very good at coming up with the right kinds of questions myself, but I have watched a number of good conversations come out of usability and focus group sessions. Every time I saw one that was actually useful, there was a good mediator.

      That’s also why there should be more than 5. If you run 100 focus groups and they all say “This is horrible, WoW did it better.” Take notice. A good mediator will also ask “How did WoW do this better.” Or “If we put X in here, how would you respond.” It’s all about the follow up questions.

  14. Gale says:

    It's obvious devlopers care about review scores.

    Cough. Probably want to fix that.

    When they say “Homefront doesn’t interest me, because I don’t live in America”, I don’t think people mean that the concept of seeing familiar locations reduced to ruin is boring unless you happen to have lived there. More that seeing familiar locations reduced to ruin is something that’s been used before, and while it’s still somewhat affecting, it’s not the gut-punch it can be for those who do live there.

    Fighting through American suburbs in Modern Warfare 2, in other words, did not feel any more invasive or personal than, say, the opening of the first Max Payne, or Dragon Age: Origin’s human noble introduction. They may be startling, but abstractly so, whereas without the visceral shock of “oh jeez, I’m fighting in what could easily be my local fast food joint”, Homefront doesn’t seem any different from the dozens of other generic FPS’.

  15. Jeff says:

    Valve has amazing QA. The entire gameplay of Left4Dead, for example, is due to good QA – they changed how maps were used based on observing the behavior and complaints of their testers. (Namely the flow and map arrangement – the initial concept was a big sandbox.)

    Then for L4D2, they looked at the behaviors of everybody who played L4D1 to bring about an even better game.

    1. Cineris says:

      L4D is probably not a good example if you want to talk about good gameplay. Campaign is, after all, basically about mowing down mindless enemies who only pose a threat because of player mistakes and the “make things difficult by making enemies do more damage” approach to gameplay that people have been complaining about for 30 years.

      Versus mode is only playable when you get into custom configurations that remove or fix a lot of things about the game. And even then — Because of how Source engine works, you’re essentially playing a game where the information presented on your screen is absolutely 100% false, and you have to guess at the invisible server’s game-state to actually succeed at things like high damage pounces, charging players, etc.

      1. Lanthanide says:

        How is the source engine somehow different from other game engines when it comes to multiplayer?

        1. Cineris says:

          Source Engine uses netcode that compensates for ping. When you’re shooting bullets, it creates the illusion of zero ping. However, as with all attempts to eliminate the effects of ping, there are side-effects.

          The side effects of Source Engine’s ping compensation are that all of the perceived effects of ping apply to movement (rather than your shooting). The end result is you get lots of annoying situations where you can run around a corner, but then the server rubber-bands your location to where another player last saw you and shot you (before you ran around aforementioned corner). This particular scenario is more noticeable in a game like TF2 or CS than L4D, since the zombies in L4D don’t carry guns and shoot you with them. However, in L4D when you play Versus mode, pretty much all of your SI require close range/proximity attacks (aside from Spitter and Smoker) which means you’re constantly struggling against the game engine to actually land any attacks (since the Survivor’s portrayed location is actually ~150-250ms delayed from their “actual location” as determined by the server).

          For those of you who played a lot of Unreal Tournament, it’s essentially the same concept as the “Zero Ping” mutator – Which was overall pretty nice if you were playing Instagib, but kind of sucks if one person has the Instagib rifle and the other one has an Impact Hammer.

    2. Khizan says:

      To agree with Cineris, L4D has some of the worst gameplay I’ve ever experienced.

      Campaign mode is pretty easy once you figure out how to handle the various elites. Higher difficulty modes only mean that you have less margin for error because things hit a lot harder.

      Versus mode is horribly, horribly balanced. The zombies are toothless and the survivors are so powerful that a game with decent players is going to be decided by some tiny flaw that doesn’t actually affect your ability to complete the mission successfully. The imbalances are compounded by latency issues with pounce/charge/etc.

      The game can be fun as hell, if you have 8 people who are all bad at the game who can do an in-house game. It’s fun then, because you can rout the survivors as horde and it’s generally a chaotic mess.

      If you want a game to talk about with good gameplay, I’d go with TF2.

    3. Abnaxis says:

      I disagree with most of the bad points you guys are making about L4D (well, I think your points about multi-player are wrong, at least; L4D isn’t really a strong single-player game).

      I’d go into more detail, but it would just be a pointless “no, you’re wrong” argument that doesn’t really produce anything. Just saying, I don’t find heralding L4D as an example of good Valve QA inappropriate in the least. :)

    4. ccesarano says:

      While Left 4 Dead 1 was great and all, Left 4 Dead 2 is only “better” if you’re playing versus mode. Otherwise, if you’re just playing regular co-op, it’s an experience that missed the point of what made the first so great in a lot of ways and is just annoying as balls most of the time.

      1. Cineris says:

        Valve really dropped the ball with L4D2 when it came to character and atmosphere, at least in my opinion. Even though I think L4D is a really flawed as a game, I enjoyed the characters, aesthetic, and brief attempts at storytelling in that game a lot. The L4D2 survivors don’t do anything for me, the music is inferior (IMO), the level designs are worse from a playability standpoint, and atmosphere was thrown out the window for yucks.

        I want to say that the special Infected AI got tragically broken between L4D1 and L4D2 as well … However, I did become a much better player of this game in that same period, so I don’t want to blame that entirely on Valve. But it’s dramatically easier to go through an entire expert campaign of L4D2 and never get boomed, or pounced, or pretty much anything, because the levels are much more open and the AI tends to enjoy walking around in the open with a big sign saying “Shoot Me.”

  16. Nevrim says:

    Hum.. I don’t know much about this game (it was my father the one who played it) but aren’t the koreans the agressors? And don’t they conquer like half of the world? Where the hell did they took that many north koreans from? Do they have some kind of cloning center?
    And for what I know every military device in US army is protected from EMP blasts.
    My father quite liked the game, but even him said that the story could have some sense somewhere and not being ridiculous from the beginnig to the end.

    1. Viktor says:

      The story originally had China doing the conquering, but they changed it for political reasons.

      1. 8th_Pacifist says:

        Meaning they changed it so they could capitalise on the Chinese market.

    2. Jarenth says:

      Kim Jong-Il figured out how to work Copy and Paste.

    3. ccesarano says:

      The original set-up of the war itself does seem a bit ridiculous, though the newspaper clippings actually make it sound a bit plausible.

      The idea is Kim Jong Il dies and his son is the successor. His son manages to unite North and South Korea, which then invades Japan. After causing a nuclear plant in Japan to meltdown and cause some major catastrophe, Japan surrenders and is annexed by Korea. I believe the newspaper clippings note that there is still a military draft and for years they basically train to be awesome.

      Korea launches its first satellite into space, which turns out to be a surprise EMP blast that takes out all of North America. This is what they use to begin their invasion.

      America itself is vulnerable due to the economy constantly going downhill and gas prices becoming ridiculous, which causes food prices to be high, so on and so forth. Military budget is cut, major Naval ships are scrapped, and the country’s might is reduced. I think this is where the game actually got to me most, as some of this stuff sounds plausible (though I’m not about to start hoarding canned goods, water and firearms any time soon). So instead of being the big military and commercial success it is today, America was pretty weak and being surpassed by other countries economically and in terms of power. Thus America was more vulnerable than ever to foreign attack.

      I like the idea of trying to simulate an attack on America since we’ve never really experienced it since the Civil War (except for 9/11, but honestly, Pearl Harbor was even uglier. But no one really thinks of Hawaii in the same way they think of New York). However, it’s not something I fantasize about, nor do I expect it to actually happen.

      1. Abnaxis says:

        For some reason, thinking of the Pearl Harbor attack happening as part of the American Civil War instead of WWII put a smile on my face…

        I imagine a redneck with a bars and stars backdrop yelling, “Damn Yankees, bombing our island!”

  17. Galad says:

    “Some people quite reasonably stated that the game doesn't interest them because they aren't from the U.S. and so the whole “home turf” thing is lost on them. I don't doubt this, although I can't understand how Modern Warfare or its ilk manage to do so well. ”

    I’d say the difference lies in the fact that Homefront actually tries to market itself as the “home turf shooter thing” where “home turf” would be the U.S. It’s not that we non-americans have something against the U.S. (at least the reasonable, non-conspiracy-theory-convinced part of us), it’s just that there’s quite enough pro-states mass media and pop culture propagation already. I mean, I watch american sitcoms(Two men and a Half, How I met my mother) these days and I enjoy them. But a game about the “home turf”? Naah, that’s bound to be full of patriotic bullshit propaganda. Sure, MW2 had that too. But was it putting that fact on display from the start, and was it trying to put it as a pillar of its advertisement campaign? Not really, at least afaik..And “Hooters”? That sounds more like the name of a chain of striptease bars lmao..

    1. Abnaxis says:

      Erm…Hooters basically is a striptease bar. It’s a restaurant with scantilly-clad women serving fried chicken.

      1. Scott (Duneyrr) says:

        They aren’t that scantily clad. The gimmick is all of the waitresses are intended to be good looking wearing tank-tops and short-shorts. It’s actually rather run-of-the-mill for the way people dress here in Los Angeles. The food is pretty good even if the restaurants are incredibly tacky.

        1. Abnaxis says:

          Huh. It might be run of the mill in LA, but here in the Midwest it looks ridiculous.

          Either the waitresses dress differently there, or the uniform has changed in the years it’s been since I’ve been there, or wedgie-shorts (seriously, you can’t tell me women are able to walk straight after wearing those for an eight hour shift…) are a regular fashion choice for women in California.

          I’d believe any of the three, really :)

    2. LadyTL says:

      Yeah Hooters, sadly, is a real place. There is actually one where I live though it’s downtown thankfully so I only have to see it occasionally.

    3. toasty_mow says:

      Hooter’s is basically as close as you can get to a strip club while still letting minors in the door. ;)

    4. ccesarano says:

      Oddly enough, I found it to be a lot less “America! FUCK YEAH!” than Modern Warfare. However, considering I am American, and I lean just right enough to love that song seriously (as well as for satire) that I probably didn’t notice most of it.

  18. Abnaxis says:

    Alright, I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate here, because it’s boring when everyone just nods on something :)

    Playtesting of the sort you describe has always struck me as an exceptionally expensive proposition. For one, it is the last step in a very long chain of developments–you need voice acting, mo-cap, animations, texturing, level design, yadda, yadda. If you aren’t just bug-fixing, the problems you find are going to completely invalidate previous work. That means you just wasted money on the development you’ve done, and now you have to spend more money and time rebuild. Players find the CO’s voice twinge-inducing? Now we have to wait while we bring the actor back, then rebuild the files, remaster the sound effects. When all that is done, pray that players like the new guy better, or you can congratualte yourself: just threw all the money you paid the actor the first time around in the trash, and pushed your release date back a month for absolutely no reason.

    Second, not every problem has a solution, just an alternative that sucks the least. Tutorials are a good example. In a game like Homefront, there is absolutely no way for them to make a tutorial that, for me, doesn’t break immersion. The whole, “Hey, you’re a kid learning to shoot a BB gun; now fast-forward twenty years and AK-47s work exactly the same!” was a stretch the first time I saw it, plus it’s becoming trite. The Drill sergeant approach is terrible for veterans. The flash card control scheme method is bad for newbies.

    For me, tutorials are just the “alright let’s get this over with” part I have to go through before I can start enjoying the game, and no amount of fixing will change that. But that doesn’t stop developers from getting a million suggestions for changing tutorials by putting the game front of testers, and they could wind up chasing their tails for years trying to come up with the exact solution that sucks the least. Not worth it, when in the end you’ll be dinged by reviewers anyway.

    I’ll concede the point that games do wind up better when companies fully test them and jump under the hood to rebuild them from the ground up when they find a problem. But the vast majority of companies have neither the money (to pay for the fixes) nor the clout (Valve can put off releasing a game for years because we know it will be good; I don’t think gamers or investors would be so patient for a company without Valve’s reputation) for testing to be an economically feasible action. It’s better to put out three games that are 70% polished than one which is 98% with the same resources.

    1. Veloxyll says:

      Except Homefront cost rather a lot to make and no-one really liked it.

      As for the tutorial, what, they don’t have rifle clubs in the US? or pet dogs? Or management training/team building excercises including paintball and stuff – now there’d be a way to do a tutorial level; take something most of us are at least conceptually familiar with and use it to introduce us to shooty shooty fun.

      To support your Devil’s Advocacy though, the biggest problem here is time. Just like the actual writing, if you’re going to do this then, just like writing, you’re going to have to do it all through the development cycle. Completing the game, then putting it through to testers and having them say “IT’S ALL WRONG THIS GAME HAS NO REDEEMABLE QUALITIES” is both expensive and not really productive, you can only either tear it all down and start over, or ignore the test data. Neither of these are appropriate ways to get science done.

    2. Jarenth says:

      You’re right that the sort of development Shamus proposes would be costly and inefficient. That’s why it’s considered good form to have testing and development tracks run as parrallel as possible — makes it much easier to spot and rectify mistakes or bad choices before you’ve sunk a lot of money into them.

      Of course, saying that it’s a good idea doesn’t mean it’s actually done much.

    3. Khizan says:

      The tutorial for games like Homefront should be 100% optional. If you need the practice or want to learn specifics, you go to boot camp or whatever. If not, you jump right in.

    4. Lanthanide says:

      “If you aren't just bug-fixing, the problems you find are going to completely invalidate previous work. That means you just wasted money on the development you've done, and now you have to spend more money and time rebuild. ”

      That’s why you bring play-testers into the process very early in the piece. You constantly iterate, and test new ideas against your play testers (and you may need to go through several batches so you can get a fresh perspective when you need one). If you listen to the developer commentary in Portal 2 and Episode 2, it’s clear that that is how Valve does it.

      “Players find the CO's voice twinge-inducing?”

      So only get them to do a small selection of voice work on their first session, and integrate that into a complete-as-you-can-get-it level and see what the play testers think.

      When Valve first unveiled Portal 2, Wheatley had an entirely different voice. The next time we saw it, they had Stephen Merchant.

    5. Abnaxis says:

      A few problems with the “QA in parallel” approach.

      1) It’s not so easy as you’re making it out to be. You can’t answer a question like “how often should the tutor volunteer hints?” or “how easy is it to intuit which path takes you to the end of the level?” without having pretty much the entire level finished. If you have a lot of open scenery to look at, the tutorial ought to shut up, and you might need more signs in the right place pointing you in the right direction. If you have gray corridors, you might be able to get away with more hand-holding and less guideposts. Putting a precise number on the “more” and “less” requires you to put a finished product in front of playtesters.

      2) Overall, you might be saving time for a high-quality, polished game. Unfortunately, however, you’re putting off the time it takes to get a game that’s at least good enough to ship out. Artistic integrity is all well and good. But when it gets to the end of a quarter, you have investors banging on the door, and you’re wondering if you’re going to meet payroll next week, it’s better for you to have a not-fully-polished product in your back pocket you can push out the door, instead of a half-done-because-we’ve-been-taking-longer-at-each-step product you can only sink more money into until either it’s finally done or you go out of business. That’s why, many times, polishing is the last step–if it comes down to the wire, it’s the only part that can be skipped and at least wind up with something passable.

      Developers aren’t stupid people (well, not necessarily). They want to make a game as good as Portal 2 as much as we want them to. But from a business standpoint, you have to be in a very secure position to able to afford that kind of development cycle. IMO, Valve is pretty much the only company that can do this.

      1. some random dood says:

        And how did Valve get in the position to do this? Oh yes, releasing games that they had *really* put the polish onto.
        Strange that no else seems to have learned this – “you have to speculate to accumulate”.
        And less strange, but very saddening, is that there are people who will stand up for this model of “let’s shovel the shit out now – people buy it anyway”. (Yes, apologies for paraphrasing your posts, but whereas I believe you made yours in good faith, I do not think the businessmen in charge of most games companies these days have any care for their gaming customers – only their shareholders [but in my opinion are failing them in the long run].)

        1. Abnaxis says:

          Damn right they only care about their shareholders. Welcome to Capitalism. Buinesses only care about the people paying their bills. Ideally, but not always, that includes their customers. That’s just the way things work–not really much use complaining about it.

          Valve got their reputation for lots of QA back in the late 90s, when blockbuster games didn’t carry a thirty million dollar price tag. The market has changed since then. It takes too much money up front for an investment like quality control that may or may not give returns to be feasible. This is why constantly pushing the envelope on graphics is a bad thing. Development costs are too big to spend money on any work that doesn’t directly get the product out the door.

          I’m not saying it’s a good thing the gaming market has come to this. However, I feel people need to realise that on the other end of the content stream, there are developers making these games, who need to eat. That’s not going to happen if they can’t make money, and they can’t make money if they never release anything because they’re too busy fiddling with it.

  19. LintMan says:

    I don’t think 2 months is nearly enough time to do the sort of playtesting you suggest, Shamus. Particularly if it’s mostly/all done near the end of the development cycle. By that point, it’s too late to to make major changes. So when the feedback is “The game isn’t fun at all, and Levels X and Z are especially painful and annoying”, it just gets ignored in favor of small issues the devs actually have time to address in the little time remaining. So the deck chairs get rearranged while the Titanic sinks. See Stardock’s Elemental for a recent example of this, in some ways, although that was also an extreme case of myopia.

    From listening to the Portal 1 and Half Life commentary tracks, it seems like Valve’s playtesting must either start REALLY early in the development cycle when it’s a lot cheaper to make changes, or they must devote many MANY months to improvements. IIRC, Valve scraps entire levels, changes adds and removes major gameplay elements, and adds new tutorial/teaching levels and sections all based on playtesting feedback and observation.

    1. Shamus says:

      I wasn’t suggesting that 2 months would provided Valve-level quality. I was saying bone-headed stuff like horrible tutorials could be fixed. Two months (give or take a bit) ought to be enough to grab the low-hanging fruit and fix the really easy, obvious stuff.

      1. woofty says:

        I won’t get into how I find destroyed landmarks I love infuriating which makes me want to play the game less, like say the Status of Liberty in Crysis 2, or how the DoD – Corporations are all evil entities, etc. Instead I’ve decided to take note that I dont’ think developers view the tutorial as part of teh game. I am wondering if they tack them on as an after thought as in, “Oh we need a tutorial, how should be place it in a game.” I seem to recall when I used to play MMO’s that they suffered from the same thing. Instead of making the tutorial as *part* of the game, they make it literally a a separate function. It seems Crysis 2 went this way as compared to how Crysis 1 played (Yeah, I keep harping on Crysis stuff – sorry). Making pretty cutscenes and posting, “Do this,” then locking the camera and your character, and forcing you to do it (what if it’s your second play through?) is not playing the game. It’s irritating, and immersion breaking.

  20. David Armstrong says:

    When playing Half Life 2, I thought the game was boring because I said, “Bah quasi-europe, who cares?”

    I’m a monster!

  21. Tizzy says:

    I want to stress that the QA folks at Valve are even smarter than what Shamus describes, according to the dev commentaries: they are able to put their finger on what playtesters disliked, even when the testers were not able to fully articulate what it was that bothered them.

    And then, instead of saying: “that’s the way the game work; deal with it!” or “games should challenge you!”, they go: “do we really need that?” and come with an amazingly clever way to bypass the difficulty.


    1. Jarenth says:

      This is just one of the reasons why I really, really want to end up working at Valve.

  22. Deoxy says:

    Sadly, no time to read all the comments today…

    Your article was pretty good, but I was thrown pretty badly by your “Waterworld vs Avatar” comment. Let’s see, “post-apocalypse on water” with otherwise cliched and bad storyline vs “noble savagesvs evil big business” with REALLY AWESOME special effects and EVEN WORSE storyline.

    So, lousy, cliched storyline vs REALLY lousy, cliched storyline with much better eye-candy. Haven’t you spent the last several years railing against the “graphics is all that matters” crowd?

    1. Veloxyll says:

      Shamus secretly has been trolling us all.

      And hated the original Fallout.

    2. Silfir says:

      Read the other comments dude. Shamus compared them on the basis of commercial success – Waterworld being a total bomb, Avatar the cashmaker extraordinaire. Waterworld and Homefront did not reach their goals. Portal 2 and Avatar did.

      1. woofty says:

        Still, even though this may have been how Shamus wanted the analogy to work, it is still poor. A big budget, as in Home Front, does not mean a great game or sales. As one poster said, and I agree, Avatar was shiney with its tech, but that’s about it. Now, it may be more correct if in asking, “Does a movies box office success make it a good movie?” If your answer is, “Yes,” then I guess the analogy works, else it fails.

  23. Neil Polenske says:


    “Press ‘RTrig’ to show your warface.”


    “Press ‘RTrig + LTRig’ to show your real warface.”


  24. X2-Eliah says:

    But but but. I actually like Waterworld. It’s a very neat mad max on water type of thing.

    Also.. The difference between ‘us soldiers at us which is invaded’ versus ‘us soldiers in desertistan invading’ is that in one, you get “OMG THEY SHOT DOWN YOUR HOME! OMG THAT WAS AN AMEEERIKUHN SCHOOL! OMG THERE’S US FLAG ON THE GROUND! OMG BURGERS!”, whereas in the other, you get much of the same, but without the whole ‘OHGOD THEY ARE INVADING OUR LIBERTIES!’ aspect. It’s pretty much ‘you are a soldier’ versus ‘you are an american’ – and you can guess three times which one resonates better with non-us folks. Of course, then you get the broshooters where your implicit nationality is imposed on you anyway.

  25. ooli says:

    [I don't want the comments to be a referendum on the U.S., its people, or foreign policy. Thanks]

    Ok but what about you always criticizing Waterworld compares to Avatar !!
    Are you aware you ‘re comparing 2 movies based on visual effect, from 2 decade away?
    Plus story-wise Avatar was themed around some obvious popular stuff (racism, ecology and anything politically correct), while Waterworld had some subtle reference to Franck Herbert beloved theme: dealing with scare resources, human mutation to environment without shoving some moral lesson down your throat. And great visuals without 3D shiny stuff.
    There’s plenty of big-budget movie from the past year to mock, leave Waterworld rest in peace.

    I’m not a Waterworld fan, but the movie was not that bad. While Avatar really was.

    EDIT: Just reading the past comments, and feel warm inside, not being the only one to defend Waterworld against the stupid Avatar.

  26. Zekiel says:

    I don’t have anything to add to the Homefront / playtesting discussion, but Shamus’ description of the tutorial section with NPCs yelling orders at you for the most trivial things reminded me of an old Dilbert cartoon :-)

  27. guy says:

    Ugh, I really hate the tutorials that are basically movies where you have to click to progress. I prefer ones where you’ve got a small but steadily increasing array of options, all the time in the world, and helpful guidance at each step. The sort where you can train a billion marines and hunt some zerglings before buckling down and harvesting vespene gas.

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